Every now and then, someone will come to me to request parish services of some sort. Maybe it’s to plan a wedding, a baptism, or a funeral; maybe it’s for money! Sometimes, not recognizing the person, I look at him or her and say, “Who are you?” “Well, Father, you don’t know me, but my parents go here; this is our family Church.” “I see, but where do you go to Church?” I usually ask. The response is usually something like this: “Well, you know how it is Father, I don’t get to Church too often … but my parents go here.”
Well, I’ve got news for you: your parents’ faith isn’t going to save you. You gotta have your own faith. You have to know Jesus for yourself. There are some things you just can’t borrow. Once, you depended on your parents, and ultimately the Church, to announce the True Faith to you. At some point, though, you have to be able to claim the True Faith as your own. Your parents can’t go to Church for you and they can’t believe for you.
On another occasion, a man came up to me in the parking lot of the local grocery store and began to talk to me as if we were old friends. Perhaps he saw the puzzled look on my face as I awkwardly wondered if I had ever met him. He was mildly offended and said, “Gosh, don’t you know who I am?” “No,” I admitted with some embarrassment. He went on to explain that his family had been one the “pillar” families who had helped build the Church and that I really ought to know who he was. “Do you come to Mass often?” I asked. “No, but I was there at the last funeral, the one for my grandmother, whom you buried. Perhaps you know who I am now!” I said, “No. I certainly knew your grandmother, but I can’t say I know you.” “That really hurts, Father, because if it hadn’t been for my family the Church wouldn’t be there.”
Eventually I got the man to admit that he hadn’t been going to Mass for more than 20 years (since he graduated from the parish school), and that his only attendance was for a few funerals and weddings. “Consider this a dress rehearsal,” I said, humorously, but with underlying seriousness. “You may be angry and disappointed that I don’t know you, but it will be a lot worse to hear Jesus say, ‘I don’t know you.'”
Indeed, in one of the judgment scenarios in Scripture, Jesus declares that he does not “know” some who seek entrance to Heaven:
- Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matt 7:22-23)
- Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’” (Lk 13:23-27)
- Later the other virgins also came, saying, “Lord, lord, open up for us.” But he answered, “Truly I say to you, I do not know you.” Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour (Mat 25:12-13).
We may wonder how the Lord cannot “know” someone. Is he not omniscient?
Here it helps to understand that the “knowing” as understood in Scripture does not have the modern Western notion of simple intellectual knowing. To “know,” in biblical terms, more richly describes knowing through personal experience. It implies an intimacy gained through a personal experience of another person, thing, or event. Sometimes the Scriptures use “knowing” to refer to sexual intercourse (e.g., Gen 4:17,25; Lk 1:34).
The Lord, who does not force us to be in an intimate relationship with Him, is indicating in verses like these that some people seeking entry to Heaven (probably more for its pleasures than for its supreme purpose as a marital union with God) have refused His invitation to intimacy. He does not “know” them because they never wanted to be known by Him in any intimate way. They may have known of Him and even spoken and taught of Him, but they did not want Him. They may have used Him for their purposes, but they did not want Him. Jesus stands at the door and knocks; He does not barge in and force Himself on anyone.
Each of us we must accept the Lord’s invitation to enter our lives and transform our hearts. We cannot simply say, “My family built the Church,” or “I went to Catholic school,” or “My mother goes there.”
Remember the story of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt 25:1-13)? They were waiting for the groom (in those days one waited for the groom; nowadays the groom waits for the bride) to show up for a wedding. Five were wise and brought extra oil for their lamps, while five were foolish and did not not. When the groom was delayed in coming, the foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil.” The wise ones replied that they could not do this because there was not enough oil for all ten of them.
You see, there are some things you just can’t borrow and some things you just can’t lend. You can’t lend your readiness to meet God to someone else. You can’t borrow someone else’s intimacy with God.
You know what happened in the story. The foolish bridesmaids went off to buy more oil and missed the groom’s arrival and then were not able to enter the wedding feast. In those days, when a wedding feast began, the doors were locked and then no one else could enter. When they finally arrived, the groom said that he did not know them.
The bottom line is that you have to know Jesus for yourself. You can’t borrow your mother’s intimacy, relationship, or readiness. You have to have your own. No one can go to Church for you. You can’t borrow someone else’s holiness.
There is an old gospel hymn that says, “Yes, I know Jesus for myself.” It’s not enough to quote the pastor; it’s not enough to say what your mother said. You have to know Jesus yourself. Do you know Him? I didn’t say, “Do you know about Him.” This is more than intellectual knowing; this is the deep, biblical, experiential knowing. Do you know the Lord Jesus? Have you experienced that He has ministered to you in the sacraments? Have you heard His voice resounding from the pulpit and in others you meet? Do you know Him? Don’t be satisfied that your mother or grandmother knew Him. You are called to know Him for yourself.